Behavioral Targeting Opt-Out: What’s the Real Deal?

Behavioral targeting has proven itself an effective marketing tool, and advertiser adoption is growing at a steady pace. But, as is the case with all online channels, consumer concerns about privacy plague behavioral targeting and its providers.

Debates about cookies, worries about Big Brother-like profiling practices…the bottom line is the current generation of consumers is pointedly aware of the privacy implications of anything they do on the Web, and they’re taking varying degrees of steps to ensure their online life is kept confidential.

What does this mean for marketers who rely on behavioral targeting to power their campaigns? How do we strike the balance between consumer trust and effective marketing practices?

E-mail faces the same problems. Many agencies have all but abandoned it as a customer acquisition channel due to regulations and best practices that govern the way advertisers can communicate via mail. The email industry is fighting this problem with, among other techniques, opt-out registries. When a consumer opts out of a commercial e-mail, the law dictates the advertiser may no longer send e-mail to that address. Period. Done deal, end of story. Opt-out policies seem help with e-mail’s spam and privacy issues, so can we translate this into behavioral targeting?

Well, sort of.

Ad networks are forthcoming with their targeting practices and policies. Yet consumers don’t know who or where the ad networks are, making it difficult to visit each of their sites to opt-out. That’s a lot to ask of most Internet users who want things done quickly and easily and (particularly when it comes to their privacy) clearly and thoroughly. In an effort to come up with a solution to privacy concerns while protecting the viability of behavioral targeting, The Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) developed a consumer opt-out repository. Consumers can opt-out of targeted advertising by all its member networks. The NAI’s tool enables users to check which ad networks have placed a cookie on their hard drive, and then submit opt-out requests for each network they prefer not to be targeted by. It’s a handy, centralized tool to help manage privacy preferences.

Many people, even without necessarily knowing why, know they can delete their cookies. Most belive this will protect them from being “profiled” or “followed” as they browse the Web. The catch is that in order for opt-outs to work, users must set their browsers to accept cookies so that they can be identified as opted-out of certain ad networks’ targeted advertising. Blindly deleting cookies without really knowing why means not only will consumers inadvertently be opted back in, but it’s also going to put a major dent in this practice which has become so effective for marketers and, whether they know it or not, useful and relevant for consumers, too.

As always, consumer education is key. Some ad networks have set up “educational” portals such as (run by SpecificMedia) or Yahoo’s behavioral targeting site, but these all have a not-so-hidden agenda: to sell that vendor’s services. Not to mention the fact consumers must search for them, and most don’t even know what “behavioral targeting” means. When you’re inside the industry, it’s easy to open up a trade publication and learn about behavioral targeting, but what about average consumers who know they want to protect their privacy, but don’t know they should read ClickZ to get the scoop on how?

It’s going to be of the utmost importance that we get the truth on behavioral targeting out to everyday consumers, no matter how. Reach out to colleges and universities’ advertising and marketing departments to educate up and comers. Industry organizations should start word-of-mouth about how behavioral targeting actually works, and how it can benefit consumers.

We’re marketers aren’t we? Now we must put our money where our mouths are. The only way to walk the fine line between consumer trust and effective marketing is to ensure the public knows what’s what.

Related reading